June 9, 2020

How this 'task force' of 21 priests is bringing last rites to Covid-19 patients

Daily Briefing

    As cases of Covid-19 increased in Boston, the Roman Catholic archbishop established a task force of 21 priests to visit hospitals and safely perform patients' last rites: a Catholic ritual that a priest says can provide "healing" for patients and their families, Elizabeth Dias reports for the New York Times.

    Related: Working with faith leaders to optimize health system engagement

    The anointment task force

    Most U.S. hospitals have barred or limited visitors, particularly for patients with Covid-19, disease caused by the new coronavirus. However, Boston is one of the few cities in the country that continued to allow priests to visit patients amid the country's Covid-19 epidemic.

    As cases of Covid-19 rose in Boston, the Roman Catholic archbishop established a task force of 21 priests who would visit patients and perform their last rites, taking novel precautions to protect themselves against contracting the new coronavirus and potentially spreading it to others. For instance, three priests who are part of the task force—David Barnes, Ryan Connors, and Thomas Macdonald—moved in together so they can stay physically isolated from their loved ones to avoid exposing them to the virus.

    The priests also follow a safety ritual before and after patient visits to protect against potentially bringing the new coronavirus home with them. Before leaving their home to visit a patient, they place a clean pair of shoes inside the door, so that they can immediately change their shoes and wash their clothes when they return, Dias writes.

    The epidemic also has changed the way the priests perform patients' last rites. For example, Connors recently anointed a patient at the ICU at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center. The patient, 59-year-old Otto Barrios, was Catholic. His daughter, Dunia, had called for a priest to perform his last rites about two weeks after Barrios was placed on a ventilator.

    Connors donned personal protective equipment, including a face shield, when he entered the ICU and carried "a clear plastic bag with a cotton ball containing a few drops of holy oil," as well as "a photocopy of pages from a liturgical book," Dias writes. Connors also used a tablet that allowed Dunia to watch the ritual remotely.

    According to Dias, both the cotton ball and the photocopy were burned after Connors completed the ritual.

    Sometimes, Barnes, Connors, and Macdonald reflect on the anointments when they return home, pondering the significance of the ritual for patients and their families during the Covid-19 epidemic.

    "The most significant moment, the defining moment of our life is how we die," Barnes told Dias after anointing a patient at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. But amid the epidemic, people should take time to examine their lives and contemplate "[w]hat is important," "[w]hat is the ultimate meaning of life," and "[w]hat is [their] ultimate hope," he said.

    Macdonald told Dias, "To live well requires preparing for death, recognizing that death is part of our human destiny."

    A 'reminder that we are not alone'

    Priests say the ritual reminds patients that they are not alone, even if they're loved ones are not able to visit them in person during their final days.

    "The whole point of the sacrament is a reminder that we are not alone," said Brian Conley, a Jesuit chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital who has performed about 100 anointings since America's Covid-19 epidemic began this year.

    Further, for some patients and their families, the ritual provides hope that the patients will recover from the disease, Dias writes.

    For instance, Addis Dempsey was unconscious and on a ventilator at St. Elizabeth's when he received his last rites from a priest last month, and his providers were able to take him off the ventilator a week later, Dias reports.

    Dempsey's cousin, Peggy Golden, told Dias, "There were a whole lot of things being poured into him, and God was one of them." She continued, "Somebody is in control of this," and "[i]f he chose to heal him here, that works fine for me" (Dias, New York Times, 6/6).

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